Whether it’s mountain bikes on our high desert trails, hybrid commuters on our city streets, or balloon-tire beach cruisers on our public coastline… Oregonians love riding their bicycles! The Beaver State is a well-known “hub” of self-powered transportation in policy and in practice, so it is interesting to look back to the past and examine the history of this phenomenon. Historic Oregon Newspapers provides an excellent avenue for this kind of research, as the digitized papers date mostly from the late-1800’s and early 1900’s–the first Golden Era of cycling in America.
The earliest form of two-wheeled transportation dates back to a German patent of 1818. Known as the “laufmaschine,” “draisine” or “dandy horse,” this device consisted of a pair of in-line wheels with a saddle and handlebars. However, unlike a true bicycle, it lacked pedals. Rather, the “dandy horse” was propelled by the rider’s feet making contact with the ground in a regular walking or running motion. The new invention created a brief sensation, but failed really to catch on with the general public. One obstacle to its long-term popularity was the need for each unit to be made to measure for a specific rider, in order to conform to the individual’s exact height and stride. Also, being composed entirely of wood, the draisine was not particularly comfortable or durable, and its practical use was all but limited to smooth garden pathways.
The next innovation occurred in France in the 1860’s, when pedals appeared for the first time–initially they were attached directly to the front wheel. This new design was called the “velocipede,” and it proved popular enough that the Michaux company began mass production in 1867. The fact that roads in France were beginning to be paved with macadam at this time seems to have abetted the velocipede craze; though the common nickname “boneshaker” indicates that the ride was still far from smooth. Nevertheless, it did not take long for the new trend to cross the Atlantic. The December 26, 1868 issue of the Jacksonville Oregon Sentinel notes, “The New York Evening Express thinks that traveling by velocipeds, now coming into vogue in New York City and elsewhere in the East, will reduce the receipts of horse railway companies very materially.”
Eugene Meyer of France invented the metal-spoke tension wheel in 1869; ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames were innovations that followed in the 1870’s. This was the decade when the high-wheel design nicknamed the “penny-farthing” was most popular. Although they may appear somewhat awkward to us today, their over-sized front wheels made these bikes very fast: witness an article from the May 5, 1876 Salem Willamette Farmer, “Bicycle Vs. Horse.” In the English contest that was the subject of this report, Stanton, the cyclist, defeats “a fast horse named Happy Jack” on a ten-mile course, pedaling a 58-inch, 40-pound “machine” at an average speed of 18 miles per hour.
The era of the penny-farthing was the time when the term “bicycle” first began to be commonly used. In those days, cycling was still regarded as the exclusive province of sporting, aristocratic young men. Even with the continuing advancements in manufacturing technology, the high-wheeled bikes remained expensive, dangerous, and “most unladylike” according to Victorian sensibilities.
All of this would change with the development of the so-called “rover” or “safety bicycle” in the 1880’s. The revolutionary design innovations achieved in this decade included the rear-wheel chain drive, pneumatic tires, and the diamond-pattern frame. Collectively, these inventions produced a bike design that was safer and more comfortable to ride, easier to corner and steer, and much less expensive to manufacture along standardized lines. It was, in summary, the emergence of the familiar bicycle design that is still with us today!
With these key improvements over the old penny-farthing, bicycles became extremely popular with the Middle Classes of Europe and North America. By the decade of the 1890’s, countries on either side of the Atlantic were caught up in the first full-blown “cycling craze.” The popularity of the trend can be tracked in the newspaper advertisements of the day. Not only are there frequent spots advertising bikes for sale, but also early examples of celebrity athlete product endorsements: from the April 1, 1897 Salem Daily Capital Journal comes “For Every Bicyclist, Champion [James] Michael Advises Use Of Paine’s Celery Compound.”
Crucially, the “safety bicycle” was now considered an appropriate–even ideal–mode of transportation for women. The bicycle became a popular symbol of the “New Woman” at the turning of the 20th century, and its impact on female liberation cannot be overstated. The eminent suffragist Susan B. Anthony praised the bicycle: “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
The popularity of bicycling played a particularly vital role in the movement for “rational dress” for women. As it was next to impossible to pedal safely in restrictive corsets and voluminous, ankle-length skirts, female riders began to substitute a “shocking” new garment called bloomers (see illustration from the Salem Capital Journal above.) Other sartorial innovations soon lead to a whole new style of active wear for women: see “Smart Togs For Cycling” on the Fashion page of the May 20, 1900 Sunday Oregonian.
The popularity of cycling also began to remake the laws of the land in these years. As more and more citizens rode cycles on busy city streets, conflicts with pedestrians became inevitable. “Proposed Bicycle Ordinance” is the headline of a June 18, 1903 article from the Salem Daily Journal. “No matter what they do, they please but a few,” wrote the editors. “Judges at a Baby Show have an easier task than the Council in settling the wheel problem.”
Even the retail landscape was changing. In prior times, cycles were “novelty” items that were mostly sold by carriage shops, general stores, and gun shops. But beginning in the early decades of the 20th century, specialty establishments exclusively dedicated to selling and servicing bicycles began to appear in many Oregon towns.
As cycles became evermore popular fixtures on the American scene, they came to feature in “extreme” forms of public entertainment. Exhibitions of stunt riding began to get coverage in the early Sports Pages, and, thanks to our newspaper digitization, contemporary readers still can thrill to the wheel-borne exploits of the Astonishing Aussie and the Gravity-Defying Diavolo in the pages of the Portland Oregonian. News of long-distance bike touring also intrigued the public: on October 16, 1913 the Ontario Argus reported the arrival of circumnavigating cyclist C. J. A. Pahl in Eastern Oregon. Another novel account is seen in a 1900 item from the Portland New Age, covering an English plan to develop a military corps of cyclists.
Even while many unusual and exciting applications of the bicycle were being discovered, it made its most profound impact in the more humble field of public transportation. Once the eccentric status symbol of rich aristocrats, the bike was now viewed as a highly practical investment for the working man. Bike ownership was regarded as a key to improved health, shorter commuting times, and more wide-ranging leisure. All over America, cyclists’ clubs and societies were formed to promote bicycle use and ownership. The largest of these clubs, the League of American Wheelmen, was one of the first organizations to actively lobby for a system of paved roads throughout the United States.
Sadly, however, the “Golden Age” cycling craze was a phenomenon of the “Gay 90’s” that had mostly run its course by the advent of the “Roaring 20’s.” In the years following World War I, automobiles increasingly assumed the more prominent place on America’s roadways and in Americans’ imaginations. It was a classic incidence of our eternal fascination with that which is newer, bigger, and faster. By the 1940’s, bikes had come to be regarded by most Americans as mere toys, and the great majority of bicycles in the U.S. were now manufactured in children’s sizes. Cycling as a pastime of adults would not return to prominence in America until the early 1970’s. It was, fittingly, a revival that occurred when people began to recognize some of the more negative impacts of our automobile-dependence upon the environment and our lifeways.
Facing as we do the energy and environmental challenges of the present times, we can appreciate how truly forward-thinking were the ethos and attitudes of the earlier cycling enthusiasts. Though they would for a time be entirely displaced by motor cars–on roadways of the Pacific Northwest, as everywhere in the country–bicycles were simply awaiting a renaissance in America. We are proud to note that Oregon is an acknowledged leader in this exciting new era of alternative transportation consciousness! —Jason A. Stone